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A criminal trial just kicked off in New York that could implicate Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in a massive conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
During opening statements in the trial of accused Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes on Tuesday, U.S. prosecutors alleged once again that Hernández said he wanted to "shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos." The arguments made clear that the U.S. plans to outline Fuentes’ connections to the highest echelons of corruption in the country and that he was a “key part of the Honduras narco-state.”
A slew of Honduran drug traffickers are expected to be witnesses during the trial of Fuentes, who pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after his 2020 arrest in Miami. And if pretrial documents about the allegations of Fuentes' connections to political and business elites in Honduras are any indication, the president is in for a landslide of new accusations.
A court motion released in January alleged that Fuentes and other traffickers paid "massive bribes" to Hernández and other high-ranking officials in exchange for protection to run a large-scale cocaine laboratory. During that period, Fuentes was connected to at least four murders. The motion also alleged that Hernández directed Fuentes to work with his brother Tony, who handled the government's involvement with the drug trade.
Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking in a U.S. court in 2019 and will finally be sentenced later this month. During his brother's trial, witnesses alleged that the president accepted over $1 million in bribes from infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
Hernández has repeatedly denied the allegations of his involvement with drug traffickers, but it seems the beleaguered president expects to be caught up in a storm of new accusations during Fuentes’ trial.
He unleashed a Twitter tirade on Monday that called the U.S. government's evidence the "false testimonies of drug traffickers who lie to take revenge, reduce their sentences, and receive other benefits."
Hernández also claimed that if narcos were given the "magic key of lying" it would cause the United States' "international alliance with Honduras to collapse."
Depending on what happens during Fuentes' trial, some observers believe that Hernández could soon become the target of U.S. authorities.
"This trial is going to drastically define the immediate future of Juan Orlando Hernández," said Joaquín Mejia, the deputy coordinator for a Honduras law firm called the Legal Team for Human Rights. "There's been various trials where he has been mentioned as a co-conspirator, however, in this trial of Geovanny Fuentes, there is overwhelming evidence, in the sense that there are videos, there are photographs of Juan Orlando Hernández with this man."
Fuentes was able to remain unknown as a criminal in Honduras by posing as a legitimate businessman and was only arrested after an outside investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It's believed that the trial will expose the political and business interests that protected Fuentes and could implicate a number of prominent figures in Honduras along with Hernández.
The trial is also playing out just as Honduras prepares for the presidential primaries later this month ahead of the upcoming November elections, which are expected to be controversial. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Honduras ruled that presidents could run for re-election for the first time in decades. Two years later, Hernández won a second term after an electoral process marred with irregularities and allegations of fraud. To further complicate matters, one of the leading candidates in the presidential primaries is Yani Rosenthal, who pled guilty to money laundering charges in 2017 and spent three years in a U.S. prison before being released in 2020.
While the attempted arrest by U.S. law enforcement of a foreign sitting president on drug charges would be unprecedented, Hernández is set to leave office in January 2021 and has stated that he does not intend to seek reelection. That could be a problem for the outgoing president after the recent change of government in the U.S.
Hernández served as an ally to former U.S. president Donald Trump, who largely remained silent on the allegations against the Honduran president while the two countries focused on working together to stem migration.
"Without the protection of Donald Trump and his people in Washington, Juan Orlando Hernández's situation is very precarious," said Mejia. "It seems like the new government of the United States is clear that a change in government is required in Honduras."
In late-February, the U.S. government made its clearest sign yet that it may be moving towards legal action against the politician when Democratic senators introduced a bill that aims to sanction Hernandez over the drug trafficking and corruption allegations, and to cut off financial assistance and the sale of ammunition to Honduras' security apparatus. The senators alleged in the bill that Hernández “has engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking.”